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Builders suffer from MERS scare

‘The fast-rising toll has given the impression that South Korean people are especially vulnerable to the virus, but that is not scientifically proven.’

The Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak is taking a toll on South Korean builders, for whom the Mideast is a major source of revenue.

Worries over South Korean construction workers in the Middle East have heightened as South Korea reported the world’s second most MERS infection cases on Monday.

Compounding the risk to the firms is an economic one: the potential that workers in the countries leave the workplace and home buyers will not visit model houses fearing infection.

“If any one of the dispatched workers gets the infection, it will definitely have an impact on other workers to avoid working in the Middle East, which is already the case,” an employee from Hanwha Engineering & Construction said.

To date, the virus has killed six people, infected 87 and pushed public-health officials to quarantine more than 12,500 others. No worker from the construction sites has reported symptoms of the virus.

The number of South Korean construction workers in the Middle East countries which have reported cases of MERS surpasses 7,100 people as of May, according to industry data.

Saudi Arabia has the highest number of dispatched workers standing at 3,912, with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates following next with 1,252 people and 1,036 people, respectively.

“The fast-rising toll has given the impression that South Korean people are especially vulnerable to the virus, but that is not scientifically proven,” a professor from Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital said.

Major builders, including Hyundai Engineering & Construction and Samsung C&T, are strengthening infection control and pre-emptive measures, such as checking on workers’ body temperature on a daily basis and banning employees who recently returned from the Middle East from attending group events.

Along with the health care management, the companies are also expressing worries about the MERS scare hitting the local property market, which has been recovering slowly on the back of low interest rates.

Builders here have been mulling over delaying the sales of new apartments as the MERS outbreak is discouraging people from visiting public places. In Korea, construction firms launch model house events to attract potential new homeowners and their popularity is an indicator of how the new property will be received by the market.

More than 56,700 new apartment flats across the country will go on sale this month, according to Real Estate 114. That is about 88 percent more than the June average of 30,184 in the past three years.

“We expected the number of visitors to drop dramatically below the usual due to the MERS outbreak and decided to postpone the sales of apartments in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province,” a GS E&C employee said. “We’d have to keep our eyes on the situation to rearrange the sales plan.”

By Suk Gee-hyun (monicasuk@heraldcorp.com)
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